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The Backyard

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

Located at the corner of the Hamilton and Van Brunt Avenues, this small oasis earned its name from its role as a pleasant backyard garden and park for the surrounding residences. The Backyard occupies an area that for more than 20 years had been a vacant lot. The geography of the land perhaps explains how the area remained empty for so long. In the colonial period, the old shoreline ran directly through the middle of what is now The Backyard, and a creek may have run through the lot and fed into the ocean. Geographers suspect that about half of this park rests on landfill. The land’s high-water table provides unsteady ground for structural foundations.

In 1997, local resident Eric Thomann worked to transform this property into an attractive and useful community space. Envisioning a garden area that the entire Columbia Waterfront community could enjoy, Thomann cleaned up the lots with the help of friends and neighbors, and the support of Operation Greenthumb.

The Backyard, along with the other Columbia Street community gardens, runs on an environmentally conscious philosophy: use materials on-site, reduce waste, reuse materials, and recycle. With this principle in mind, Thomann designed the interior structures of the garden with materials left over from the property’s days as a vacant lot. Thomann and his garden group constructed most of the garden’s essential structures from materials found on-site. Old bricks, slate, cinderblocks, and several benches and chairs were all recycled and used at the park.

In addition to its maintenance efforts, the group has initiated a compost center and extensive “tree-outgrow” program. The Backyard’s five-bin compost program recycles kitchen scraps, weeds, and organic refuse, converting the waste into fertilizer for topsoil. The garden group has also begun to nurture approximately 750 seedlings a year using some of this homemade soil. When they grow into saplings, the trees are given to other Greenthumb gardens and to Parks in order to spread greenery throughout the city.

The Backyard also serves as a hub for local community activity. Along with the other neighborhood community gardens, this park plays host to “Reels on Wheels” which shows movies for families on summer Friday nights. There are also sculpture exhibits, poetry readings, and storytelling events in the park. The Backyard also serves as a rest stop for cyclists traveling between the Brooklyn Bridge and Red Hook.

Thomann and neighborhood residents have shown that while a high-water table is bad for buildings, it can be great for gardens. As the European birches, poplar trees, perennials, and baby saplings continue to grow in this urban garden, it has become clear that The Backyard is a beautiful asset to the Columbia Waterfront community.

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